In my most recent post on Dangerous Intersection, as well as others previously, I’ve written about the many ways in which the traditional media has willfully discarded its obligation to inform the public. And so far, as the 2008 presidential election gets into full swing, there are no signs of improvement. If anything, the traditional media has sunk lower than ever before, thrusting legitimate stories aside to pursue trivial distractions and shallow and meaningless issues of “character”.
So, are we as a nation doomed to become more and more ill-informed? Is our standing in the world only going to get worse while the populace is lulled into distraction by the TV screen? Is there no reason for hope?
Well, actually, there is. But it’s not the media is improving. Rather, it’s that Americans are increasingly recognizing its failings and abandoning it in huge numbers (HT, as always, to Glenn Greenwald).
Those trend lines tell an alarming story. The combined average audience for the big-three evening newscasts in 1980 was about 53 million viewers. By the fall of 2006, when Couric was getting ready to make the jump from NBC’s “Today” show, the three national evening newscasts had a combined audience of about 27 million viewers.
How’s that for a trend line? The evening newscasts lost about half of their audience over 26 years. They lost viewers at a rate of 1 million a year, and they’re still losing them. Last week, according to numbers Nielsen released Tuesday, the combined audience was 21.5 million.
The rise of blogs and the Internet has undoubtedly accelerated the decline, but it is not the sole cause. As the article says, this downturn began as long ago as the 1980s. According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, people’s declining opinions of the news industry are partly the cause:
As we have noted in other reports,since the early 1980s, the public has come to view the news media as less professional, less accurate, less caring, less moral and more inclined to cover up rather than correct mistakes.
…The number of Americans with a favorable view of the press, for instance, dropped markedly in 2006, from 59% in February, to 48% in July. The metric can be volatile, but that was still one of the lower marks over the course of a decade.
And in one of the most basic yardsticks of public attitudes, the number of Americans who believe most or all of what news organizations tell them, there were continued declines. Virtually every news outlet saw its number fall in 2006.
With continuing stories like the revelation that the news channels hired bought-and-paid for Pentagon agents to spread favorable propaganda about the Iraq war in the guise of an “independent voice” – and those same channels’ ongoing and shocking blackout of this story – it’s not hard to understand why the American public is increasingly abandoning them and turning to other sources, such as the Internet, for news. And the sooner the better, I say.
Granted, on the Internet, it’s easy to find sources of information that are more fiercely partisan and agenda-driven than even Fox News, and whose disinterest in the facts is even worse than the traditional media’s. But the great virtue of the Internet, as former Vice President Al Gore said in The Assault on Reason, is that it’s a medium where the barriers to entry are low. Anyone can participate, and this makes it very easy to find a broad spectrum of differing views. Thus, in a key sense, the news from the Internet is balanced in a way that news from traditional sources can never be. (Of course, I’m preaching to the choir here, aren’t I?)
This productive cacophony of views is a far better analogue to the marketplace of ideas than the traditional media, where a few unaccountable individuals have enormous power to shape the focus, tone and direction of coverage that informs (or fails to inform) millions of people. In the increasingly diverse media landscape of the future, it will be far more difficult for meddling politicians and wealthy corporations to manipulate public opinion to their advantage.